History of photography
Yousuf Karsh (December 23, 1908 – July
13, 2002) was a Canadian photographer of Armenian heritage, and one
of the most famous and accomplished portrait photographers of all
Yousuf or Josuf (his given Armenian name was Hovsep) Karsh was born
in Mardin, a city in the eastern Ottoman Empire (currently in
Turkey). He grew up during the Armenian Genocide where he wrote, "I
saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were
driven from village to village." At the age of 14, he fled with his
family to Syria to escape persecution. Two years later, his parents
sent Yousuf to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer in
Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Karsh briefly attended school there and
assisted in his uncle’s studio. Nakash saw great potential in his
nephew and in 1928 arranged for Karsh to apprentice with portrait
photographer John Garo in Boston, United States. His brother, Malak
Karsh, was also a photographer famous for the image of logs floating
down the river on the Canadian one dollar bill.
Karsh returned to Canada four years later, eager to make his mark.
He established a studio on Sparks Street in Ottawa, Ontario, close
to Canada’s seat of government. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie
King discovered Karsh and arranged introductions with visiting
dignitaries for portrait sittings. Karsh's work attracted the
attention of varied celebrities, but his place in history was sealed
on 30 December, 1941 when he photographed Winston Churchill after
Churchill gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa.
The image of Churchill brought Karsh international prominence, and
is claimed to be the most reproduced photographic portrait in
history. In 1967, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and
in 1990 was promoted to Companion.
Of the 100 most notable people of the century, named by the
International Who’s Who , Karsh had photographed 51. Karsh was
also the only Canadian to make the list.
In the late 90s he moved to Boston and on July 13, 2002 (He was 93
years old) Karsh died at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital after
complications following surgery. He was interred in Notre Dame
Cemetery in Ottawa. Karsh was a master of studio lights. One of
Karsh's distinctive practices was lighting the subject's hands
separately. He photographed many of the great and celebrated
personalities of his generation. Throughout most of his career he
used the 8×10 bellows Calumet (1997.0319) camera, made circa 1940 in
Chicago. Journalist George Perry wrote in the British paper The
Sunday Times that "when the famous start thinking of immortality,
they call for Karsh of Ottawa."
Karsh had a gift for capturing the essence of his subject in the
instant of his portrait. As Karsh wrote of his own work in Karsh
Portfolio in 1967, "Within every man and woman a secret is hidden,
and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The
revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a
second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief
lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost
selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the
photographer must act or lose his prize."
Karsh said "My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in
mind, and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble." His work is
in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, New
York's Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, George
Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film,
Bibliotheque nationale de France, the National Portrait Gallery in
London, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and many others.
Library and Archives Canada holds his complete collection, including
negatives, prints and documents. His photographic equipment was
donated to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.
Karsh published 15 books of his photographs, which include brief
descriptions of the sessions, during which he would ask questions
and talk with his subjects to relax them as he composed the
portrait. Some famous subjects photographed by Karsh were Albert
Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Audrey
Hepburn, Clark Gable, Dwight Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway, Fidel
Castro, Jacqueline Kennedy, Frank Lloyd Wright, General Pershing,
George Bernard Shaw, Georgia O'Keeffe, Grey Owl, Helen Keller,
Humphrey Bogart, Indira Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Laurence Olivier,
Marian Anderson, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Muhammad Ali, Pablo Casals,
Pandit Nehru, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Paul Robeson, Joan Baez, Peter
Lorre, Picasso, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Pope Pius XII, Pope John
Paul II, Princess Elizabeth, Princess Grace, Prince Rainier of
Monaco, Robert Frost, Ruth Draper, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke,
the rock band Rush and, arguably his most famous portrait subject,
The story is often told of how Karsh created his famous portrait of
Churchill during the early years of World War II. Churchill, the
British prime minister, had just addressed the Canadian Parliament
and Karsh was there to record one of the century's great leaders.
"He was in no mood for portraiture and two minutes were all that he
would allow me as he passed from the House of Commons chamber to an
anteroom," Karsh wrote in Faces of Our Time. "Two niggardly minutes
in which I must try to put on film a man who had already written or
inspired a library of books, baffled all his biographers, filled the
world with his fame, and me, on this occasion, with dread."
Churchill marched into the room scowling, "regarding my camera as he
might regard the German enemy." His expression suited Karsh
perfectly, but the cigar stuck between his teeth seemed incompatible
with such a solemn and formal occasion. "Instinctively, I removed
the cigar. At this the Churchillian scowl deepened, the head was
thrust forward belligerently, and the hand placed on the hip in an
attitude of anger."
The image captured Churchill and the Britain of the time perfectly —
defiant and unconquerable. Churchill later said to him, "You can
even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed." As such,
Karsh titled the photograph, The Roaring Lion.
However, Karsh's favourite photograph was the one taken immediately
after this one where Churchill's mood had lightened considerably and
is shown much in the same pose, but smiling.
Karsh has influenced many other photographers in different styles to
become more independent and further motivate other artists.
Winston Churchill, 1941
"Tiny" Stirtzinger of Atlas Steel
Sir Archibald John Clark Kerr (Lord Inverchapel)
H. L. Ickes
Frank Lloyd Wright
Clare Boothe Luce
"Fridolin" Gratien Galinas
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru
General Dwight Eisenhower
Pope Pius XII
Marshall McLuhan at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
Men working in steel factory
His Holiness Pope Pius XII
Ingot Pouring Atlas Steel
Paint Spraying Operation - Ford of Canada
H. R. H. Faisal Ibn Abdul Aziz
Henry Moore, Sculptor
Hands: Thomas Mann